Post-classical history



The Changeling – Edward II

One of the best examples of the brutal and brainless athlete established on a throne

Thomas Frederick Tout1

The Battle of Old Byland, 1322

In August 1322 Edward II invaded Scotland to avenge Bannockburn, to find Robert the Bruce had withdrawn behind the Forth, taking everything edible with him. Starving, the English king and his troops retreated with their loot – a single, lame cow. Recuperating at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, he suddenly learned that Robert was at the top of Sutton Bank, a few miles away. The Earl of Richmond confronted the Scots on high ground above the abbey, at Old Byland, but the English were so frightened that they ran ‘like hares chased by greyhounds’ and the earl was captured.2 Leaving behind his jewels, Edward fled to Bridlington from where a boat took him to safety. A contemporary comments that the king had always been ‘chicken hearted and prone to disaster in war, having already run in terror before them [the Scots] in Scotland’.3

A defeat on English soil, Old Byland was even more humiliating than Bannockburn and confirmed what the king’s subjects had suspected: he was not up to his job. It also fuelled a suspicion that he was a changeling, not even a Plantagenet.

‘a perverted weakling’

Winston Churchill’s cruel verdict on Edward II derived from the Victorians. ‘He is the first king since the Conquest who was not a man of business’, thundered Stubbs, ‘his tastes at the best are those of the athlete and the artisan; vulgar pomp, heartless extravagance, lavish improvidence, selfish indolence . . . there is nothing in Edward, miserable as his fate is, that invites or deserves sympathy.’4 Tout was kinder. ‘It was not so much the king’s vices as his idleness and incompetence which his subjects complained of’, he argued. ‘If he did not like work, he was not very vicious; he stuck loyally to his friends and was fairly harmless, being nobody’s enemy so much as his own.’ Yet in essence Tout agreed with Stubbs.5

Modern scholarship has unearthed nothing that might temper the Victorian view. Edward was incapable of facing the world without a strong man at his side, invariably someone whom everybody else detested. Reliance on unsuitable favourites caused constant crises, while his later years resembled a dress rehearsal for the Wars of the Roses. In his most recent biographer’s words, Edward was ‘a lamentable character, his reign a shambles’.6

Early years

Edward was born in Caernarfon Castle on 25 April 1284, the youngest of fourteen, including four elder brothers who died young. He thus became heir to the throne when a few months old. Growing up in the shadow of a terrifying father did little for his self-confidence. When he was thirteen, the king gave him a companion of his own age, whom it was hoped might be a good influence. This was a clever, athletic boy of knightly family from Béarn called Piers de Gabaston – anglicized to ‘Gaveston’.

Edward II was in Scotland when his father died. Within weeks he withdrew the army, after reinforcing the Perth and Stirling garrisons, and appointing Aymer de Valence as guardian. Then he sent a message for Piers to come to him at once. In October he buried his father at Westminster Abbey in a massive tomb of grey Purbeck marble that lacked any inscription until the sixteenth century when words in Latin were carved on it:

Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots. Keep Troth

There was no effigy. The omission has been explained as a tribute to the late king’s austere dignity or an attempt to copy St Louis’s sepulchre at Saint-Denis. But the suspicion remains that Edward wanted to forget a nightmarish parent. He settled another grudge by sending Bishop Langton, the treasurer with whom he had quarrelled, to the Tower.

What we know about Edward comes from chroniclers who did not admire him. They include two secular priests, Adam of Murimuth and Geoffrey le Baker, and a Benedictine, Robert of Reading, who loathed him. Another Benedictine, John Trokelowe of St Albans, took a kinder view. The best source is the Life, wrongly attributed to a monk of Malmesbury, written by an unidentified, well-informed, baronial bureaucrat, who tried to be fair despite a bias in favour of the magnates.7


Less than a month after Edward’s accession, Piers Gaveston was made Earl of Cornwall, a gift to a squire of an earldom intended by the late king for one of his younger sons. This outraged the magnates. In November Piers married the king’s niece, sister of the Earl of Gloucester, who was England’s richest magnate. Encouraged by Edward, he then arranged a tournament at Wallingford, hiring champion jousters from all over England to fight for him, so that the other team, including several earls and barons, were quickly knocked out of their saddles. Had he behaved deferentially, the magnates might have accepted him, but he treated no one as an equal except the king. On 20 December, before leaving for his wedding in France, Edward appointed the new earl guardian of the kingdom.

Wedding and coronation

The king’s marriage to the twelve-year-old Isabella of France at Boulogne on 25 January 1308 was attended by her father Philip IV, who was no less alarming than Edward I. When his son-in-law asked what dowry he proposed to give his daughter, Philip replied that it had been given when he returned Gascony. But Isabella was welcome in England, for re-establishing the link between the two dynasties and making less likely another war across the Channel.

Met by Gaveston at Dover on 7 February, Edward embraced him again and again, giving him all his wedding presents. Since Archbishop Winchelsey was in exile, Edward and his child bride were crowned by the Bishop of Winchester at Westminster on 25 February. He swore his coronation oaths in French because of his poor Latin, making a new promise, to maintain laws chosen by the community of the realm.

Piers carried the crown, annoying the magnates still further. At the coronation banquet he dressed in purple sewn with pearls, as if to belittle other lords in cloth of gold. He had been entrusted with organizing the banquet, which was badly cooked and badly served. ‘Seeing the king prefer sitting next to Piers rather than the queen, made her two uncles so angry that they went home to France’, says a London chronicler, who adds, ‘As a result, rumours circulated that the king was more in love with this artful and malevolent man than his bride, that truly elegant lady, who is a most beautiful woman.’8

The man

Tall and well built, Edward had a weak little face hiding behind a beard. Naturally indolent, his priority was enjoying himself. What his nobles disliked so much were his amusements and his friends. He preferred farm work to jousting – thatching, digging and hedging, shoeing horses, besides rowing and running races. Another pastime was play acting – the third-rate Bishop of Worcester, Walter Reynolds, owed his promotion to Canterbury to thespian skills. ‘Instead of lords and ladies, whose company he avoided, he mixed with harlots, singers and jesters, with carters, diggers and ditchers, with rowers, sailors and boatmen, and went in for heavy drinking’, says the chronicler Ranulph Higden, adding that the king was dangerously indiscreet and petty minded, losing his temper with those around him for the least fault.9 His liking for low society may have been due to mental derangement.10

Tout’s description of Edward as brutal and brainless has been questioned, but the more one learns the apter it seems. His brutality showed in a cruel streak, his lack of brains in an absence of any understanding of business or politics, and an inability to read the Latin needed for administration. Uninterested in beautiful things other than jewels, his one talent was a flair for verse in Norman French, rarely displayed. Low self-esteem and a paralysing lack of confidence explains his dependence on strong-minded favourites.

Despite having four children by his queen and another by a mistress, he has gone down to history as a homosexual, largely because of Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward the Second, which is based on an imaginative reading of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Most modern historians disagree with this assessment.11 When the author of the Vita compared the king’s affection for Piers to that of David for Jonathan, he was not thinking of sodomy. A more plausible reason for Gaveston’s dominance is the power of a strong mind over a weak one and the support he gave to a man who suffered from panic attacks – not unlike the reassurance given by an understanding male nurse to a mental defective.

Among his few personal tastes, other than ‘peasant amusements’, was a fondness for two small palaces. One was King’s Langley in Hertfordshire, given to him by his father in 1302, where he later founded a Dominican priory. The other was Burstwick near Hull, which after belonging briefly to Gaveston became the king’s main residence in the North. ‘Langley and Burstwick stood to Edward II as Osborne and Balmoral to Queen Victoria’, comments Tout.12

Conventionally pious, he did not inherit the family cult of the Confessor, but showed a marked devotion to St Thomas, making pilgrimages to Canterbury. He also often visited the abbey of St Albans, to which he gave timber for new choir stalls.

The Ordainers

The leaders of what became an opposition were mediocrities. ‘Five earldoms and close kinship with the two greatest monarchs in the west gave neither dignity, policy, patriotism nor common sense to that most impossible of all medieval politicians, earl Thomas of Lancaster’, says Tout, who adds he was ‘sulky, vindictive, self-seeking, brutal and vicious’.13 John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, was a disreputable nonentity, while the bookish Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick was treacherous. On the other hand, Aylmer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, was impeccably honourable as well as eminently sane. So too was the aged Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, who had been among the late king’s most trusted ministers.

Gaveston’s worst sin was depriving them of their role as the monarch’s advisers. Jointly, they took an oath to make him leave the country and surrender his earldom, arriving in London for the parliament of spring 1308 with armed retainers. Their spokesman was Lincoln, who had tried to make Piers behave sensibly but had been rebuffed. Complaining that the favourite was squandering the Crown’s revenues, he insisted on his banishment. Edward dared not refuse. Giving up his earldom, Piers went to Ireland as lieutenant. Archbishop Winchelsey, who had returned to England more pugnacious than ever, announced he would excommunicate him should he dare to come back.

Even so, Edward secured Gaveston’s return next year, by promising parliament to satisfy grievances such as failure to hear petitions and to improve the currency, disarming Lincoln, Hereford and Warwick with flattery. Philip IV, who had paid two of the earls to plot against Piers after complaints from Queen Isabella, withdrew his opposition when she was given the county of Ponthieu, while in exchange for more rigorous persecution of the Templars, the pope blocked Winchelsey’s threat of excommunication. In July 1309 Gaveston rejoined the king, who met him when he landed at Chester, regranting his earldom and estates.

He made himself more disliked than ever, giving his fellow earls nicknames that circulated widely. Lancaster was the ‘Churl’, the ‘Rangy Pig’ or the ‘Fiddler’, Warwick the ‘Black Dog of Arden’ (from foaming at the mouth when in a rage), Pembroke ‘Joseph the Jew’ and Lincoln ‘Burst Belly’, while Gloucester, the only one who tolerated him, was ‘Whoreson’ – an unkind allusion to the dowager countess’s hasty second marriage. Nobody saw Edward without Gaveston’s approval and he had a stranglehold on patronage. People suspected he was a warlock – there were rumours of his mother having been burned as a witch.

In the autumn he had a Lancaster retainer sacked from the royal household. ‘Watch out, Piers’, warns the Vita. ‘The earl of Lancaster will pay you back.’14 At Christmas the earls refused to come to court if he was present, telling Edward that while Piers was in the royal chamber they did not feel safe. They attended parliament in March 1310 on condition he stayed away. When it met, they declared the realm had fallen into a perilous condition since the late king’s death and could only be saved by an elected council. The king reluctantly agreed to the election of ‘Ordainers’, who included Archbishop Winchelsey and Lancaster with some of Edward I’s old ministers. Then, on Gaveston’s advice, Edward tried to distract them with a campaign in Scotland.

In September 1311 the Ordainers demanded that the king ‘live of his own’ and observe the charters, and that royal gifts and appointments to high office should be controlled by a twice yearly parliament. His household was purged of unpopular officials, while foreign merchants collecting the customs were arrested – a measure aimed at the royal banker, Amerigo de Frescobaldi, who was ruined. What hurt Edward most was the ordinance against Gaveston, accused of estranging the king from his natural advisers, unlawfully accepting estates and protecting criminals. He was exiled as a public enemy.

The end of Gaveston

In November Gaveston left for Flanders, but the Ordainers went too far by insisting that his friends and hangers-on leave court as well. Defiantly, Edward recalled him, and he was back in January with his lands restored. In response, the earls made Lancaster their leader and entrusted Pembroke with catching Piers, while Winchelsey prepared another excommunication. Unaware of this, Edward spent most of April with Gaveston in Newcastle until they learned Lancaster was coming with an army. Leaving Piers, who had fallen ill, at Scarborough Castle, the king went off to find troops.

Pembroke besieged the castle and on 19 May, without a proper garrison or provisions, Piers surrendered on condition he be kept safe until parliament met, after which he could go back into the castle if satisfactory terms had not been agreed. Pembroke took his captive south, leaving him at Deddington rectory in Oxfordshire while he visited his wife at their manor nearby. Early on the morning of 10 June the Earl of Warwick’s men surrounded the house and seized Piers, dragging him off to Warwick Castle, first on foot at the end of a rope and then on a broken-down nag.

Ten days later, he was handed over to Lancaster before whom he grovelled, begging for mercy. ‘Pick him up! Pick him up!’, cried the earl. ‘In God’s name, take him away!’ He was led off to Blacklow Hill 2 miles off, where a Welshman ran him through with a sword and another Welshman hacked his head off, Lancaster watching from a distance. According to the Vita, all England rejoiced at the news, with one exception. ‘By God’s soul, he behaved like a fool’, cried Edward. ‘If he’d taken my advice, the earls would never have got hold of him. I always told him to keep clear of them as I knew something like this would happen. Just what did he think he was doing with the Earl of Warwick, who hated Piers, as everybody knows? I was sure he could never escape if the earl caught him.’15

Civil war seemed unavoidable. The earls wanted the ordinances; the king wanted revenge. But while the earls controlled northern England and had captured all Edward’s ready money, at Newcastle, Warwick and Lancaster shrank from a confrontation. Penniless, Edward listened to Pembroke and Gloucester, who advised against armed conflict. Philip of France and Pope Clement sent envoys to mediate. Meanwhile, parliament refused to grant supplies, so the king borrowed money from London merchants.

In November 1312 the queen gave birth to her first child, the future Edward III. ‘To some extent this soothed the king’s grief at Piers’s death, by providing the realm with an heir’, says the Vita, warning readers that without one there would be war for the throne when the king died.16 It brought the father unaccustomed self-confidence. He began listening to his wife’s advice, and his pardon to the earls in October 1313 stated he did so at the intercession of his dearest companion, Isabella, Queen of England.


Living up to his name of ‘Hob in the Moors’, the Bruce was using hit-and-run tactics, avoiding pitched battles and demolishing castles, not only those he captured but his own, which meant there were fewer strongpoints. Small English garrisons could no longer hold down wide areas, and town after town fell to Robert. Since 1311 he had been raiding over the border into Northumberland and Cumberland, whose inhabitants grew so desperate that they paid him protection money. He even attacked Durham. Early in 1314 Edinburgh and Roxburgh fell. Other than Berwick, the only major Scottish fortress retained by the English was Stirling, besieged by Robert’s brother. Its constable sent word to Edward that he must surrender if relief did not reach him by midsummer. Near to tears when he heard he had lost Edinburgh, the king was determined to save Berwick. If he did, winning a significant victory, he could afford to ignore the Ordainers.

Early in June, sending Pembroke ahead to reconnoitre, Edward marched out from Berwick with 2,000 men-at-arms and 10,000 foot. Protesting that the campaign had not been approved by a parliament and that they had no wish to infringe the Ordinances, Lancaster, Warwick and Warenne stayed away but sent troops. Edward marched at breakneck speed, with very short halts for sleep and meals. The Scots had wrecked the road by digging pits along it, so the English army was exhausted by the time it came in sight of Stirling on the afternoon of Sunday 23 June.

Robert was waiting, with half as many infantry and only 500 men-at-arms. When two English scouting parties attacked as soon as they arrived, he routed them, personally killing one of their commanders. Even so, despite spending the night on wet marshland, Edward’s troops expected to win overwhelmingly next day because of their numbers and weaponry. But the king made a fatal mistake in naming Gloucester as constable (commander-in-chief) in place of Hereford, the hereditary constable, causing a dispute that deprived the English of coherent leadership. Overwrought, Edward also rejected Gloucester’s advice to let his tired troops recuperate, accusing the earl of treachery.

Next morning, instead of staying on the defensive when the English moved up to attack, the Scots’ four schiltrons of pike-men crossed the Bannockburn and advanced over the marshy ground towards their surprised enemy. It should have been simple enough to drive off the scanty Scottish cavalry so the archers could shoot the pike-men down, as at Falkland; but Edward lacked a battle plan and had no control over his army. Instead Gloucester led a chaotic charge that became bogged down in the marshy soil, he himself being unhorsed and killed with many men-at-arms and infantry.

Before the English archers on the right flank could do much damage the Scottish horse rode up and cut them down. Bruce’s pike-men then routed the remaining English infantry. When Edward had a horse killed under him, his household warned it was no longer safe to stay, so he fled towards Stirling Castle. Seeing the royal standard leave the field, what was left of his army broke and ran. A thousand Englishmen died in the battle, many more being killed or taken prisoner during a pursuit that went on for 50 miles. Casualties included 22 barons and 68 knights – even the privy seal was captured with its keeper. The Scots lost 500 pike-men and two knights.

Anxious to make terms with Bruce and save their lives, the garrison of Stirling Castle refused to let the king enter, so he galloped to Dunbar, finding a ship to Berwick from where he sailed to York. He had suffered the worst defeat seen in Britain since the Norman Conquest. Knowing his father had destroyed a Scottish army of the same sort at Falkirk, all England realized his inadequacy. For over a decade the Scots plundered and slew as far south as Yorkshire. Carlisle nearly fell to King Robert in 1315 and Berwick went two years later. There was trouble in Wales, where Llewelyn Bren (‘Llewelyn of the Woods’) raised Glamorgan and Gwent in 1316, burning English castles.

The immediate result was the triumph of the Ordainers. Three months after Bannockburn the king reluctantly confirmed the Ordinances in a parliament at York, dismissing his chancellor, treasurer and sheriffs, who were replaced by men chosen by the earls.

In February 1315 Edward interred the still unburied corpse of Piers Gaveston at the Dominican friary he had built at King’s Langley, with a service led by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, who was assisted by many bishops and abbots. Edward had hoped to make the earls attend the burial, which was why it had not taken place before. Piers’s biographer stresses that the ceremony shows how much Bannockburn demoralized the king.17

Queen Isabella emerges

Gaveston had not been followed by ‘an unending stream of catamites’, whatever one popular historian suggests.18 Queen Isabella took his place and began to play an important role in political life. Very beautiful, she had the same thick, blonde hair and large, unblinking, pale blue eyes as her father Philip IV, who was the most handsome man in Europe. She also inherited his intelligence and cruelty, and gift for hiding what he thought behind a smiling mask. She was fond of music and books, and her household included minstrels and instrumentalists, while she owned a library of illuminated Arthurian romances. She also enjoyed hunting and hawking. Noticeably more pious than the king, she was genuinely charitable, not only feeding the poor but arranging for the adoption of a small boy who had been orphaned in the Scottish wars. A less attractive quality was avarice.

In 1313 Isabella and Edward visited Paris, where she persuaded her father to confirm Edward as Duke of Guyenne. Next year she paid another visit, securing further concessions. During her stay Philip was told his daughters-in-law were unfaithful, a charge resulting in their imprisonment and their lovers being broken on the wheel – Isabella was rumoured to have been his informant. Her father died a few months after Bannockburn, supposedly summoned to hell by the Templar Grand Master, whom he had just burned at the stake.

Isabella did her best to make her husband resist the Ordainers. At this time he was devoted to her, rewarding a knight who brought the news of their second son’s birth with £100. She attended the royal council meetings and in 1316, when the bishopric of Durham fell vacant, prevailed on Edward to appoint her candidate Louis de Beaumont, in the teeth of Lancaster’s opposition.

The Earl of Lancaster fails

The Ordainers’ leader, Edward’s Plantagenet cousin, the Earl of Lancaster, had risen in public esteem for refusing to serve on the Bannockburn campaign. Three years older than the king, a man who was in every way unlike his grandfather Henry III, Thomas of Lancaster comes down the centuries as stupid, arrogant and unscrupulous despite undeserved popularity. His programme was to replace the Crown’s power by a council of magnates, and win support by reducing taxes. He had no real objectives beyond his own interests and taking revenge on personal enemies.

Everything conspired against Lancaster. The weather was hostile from 1314 to 1322, rain falling day after day so that the crops failed in what became known as the Great Famine, people being driven to cannibalism. Thousands perished when disease followed hunger, killing men and animals. Farm rents collapsed, wiping out royal and baronial revenues. Law and order broke down, with riots throughout the country.

The earl had no allies after the deaths of his wise old father-in-law Lincoln in 1311 and Warwick four years later. Even if he found supporters among lesser barons and the bishops, his fellow magnates loathed him. Having dominated the royal council since Bannockburn, he became its official head in the parliament of January 1316, cancelling all grants of Crown land to favourites over the last six years. But either from arrogance or ill health he then stayed away from parliaments, making enemies of men who should have been his friends. When Surrey tried to obtain an annulment so that he could marry his mistress, Lancaster intervened and Surrey was excommunicated. He retaliated by abducting Lancaster’s wife.

Meanwhile, new courtiers found favour with Edward. Hugh Audley was given Gaveston’s widow and Roger Damory, an obscure Oxfordshire knight, secured the king’s niece, the twice widowed Elizabeth de Clare, who was one of the richest women in the country. William Montague obtained the coveted job of steward of Gascony. Hugh Despenser, a former minister of Edward I who had recommended himself by his cynical support for Piers, also gained advancement. Others included Lord Badlesmere, a great Kentish landowner, and John Giffard.

There was also a ‘middle party’ led by Pembroke, which opposed both the court and Lancaster. ‘If we are to make a hero in the reign at all, earl Aymer of Pembroke has surely the best claim to that distinction’, says Tout.19 With Badlesmere, he hoped to isolate Lancaster while keeping the Ordinances, and give back the king most of his powers if he governed wisely. Isabella supported this sensible but not very strong man, whose advice offered the best hope of stability.

The Treaty of Leake

By autumn 1316 Lancaster had abandoned his attempt to rule and was sulking on his estates. He prepared for civil war as did King Edward. Each man hated and feared the other. While Thomas had no wish to risk his life in battle, and he felt little affection for his wife – they lived apart – her abduction nearly drove him into rebellion because he suspected Edward of encouraging it. When his men harried Surrey’s northern lands, the king saw a pretext for crushing Lancaster by force. However, Pembroke dissuaded him, while a group of bishops restrained Earl Thomas.

Two strange incidents did not make Edward feel any more secure. At Whitsun 1317 a masked woman rode a horse into the banqueting hall at Westminster and handed a letter to him as he sat at dinner, which he ordered to be read aloud. Embarrassingly, it complained of the shabby way he treated the knights of his household. Arrested, the woman confessed to being paid by one of the knights to deliver the letter.

Then, early in 1318, a young Oxford cleric named John of Powderham, who resembled Edward, presented himself at the nearby Palace of Beaumont and announced he was the true king of England, offering to undergo trial by combat with his supplanter. He claimed he had been exchanged at birth for Edward, who was a carter’s son – the reason why he did not govern properly and liked peasant pursuits. Brought before the king, he called him a changeling, repeating his offer to fight for the throne, but when put on trial at Oxford he broke down, telling the court he had acted under instructions from his cat, who was the devil. He and the poor feline were hanged side by side. According to the Vita, this ridiculous episode was reported throughout the whole country, infuriating the queen ‘beyond words’.20

The quarrel between the king and Lancaster simmered on, the earl claiming that, as holder of the earldom of Leicester, he should be high steward – the office held by Simon de Montfort. Finally Pembroke prevailed. In August 1318 peace between Edward and the earl was reached at Leake (in Nottinghamshire) with a treaty harking back to the barons’ attempt to control Henry III sixty years before. The Ordinances, Lancaster’s talisman, were reaffirmed, while five members of a council of seventeen were to supervise royal business. Badlesmere, who was acceptable to both sides, became steward of the household, and the new chamberlain was the younger Hugh Despenser.

There was general agreement that Berwick must be recovered. After capturing the town, the Scots had begun raiding further south, the people of Ripon only saving their lives by taking shelter in the minster and paying £1,000. Lancaster joined Edward’s army in besieging Berwick in the summer of 1319, but was suspected of treachery. Implying he was a traitor, the Vita says he disgraced the royal family, but it is more likely that he merely paid the Scots protection money. When King Robert sent a force to attack Pontefract Castle, his main residence, Lancaster rushed home. He may also have heard that Edward was muttering, ‘When this miserable siege is over, we’ll get back to other business – I haven’t forgotten what was done to my brother Piers.’21 It was the end of the Treaty of Leake.

The rise of the Despensers

The king abandoned the siege, and it only needed a spark to set alight his feud with Lancaster – which Hugh Despenser the younger soon provided. Sir Hugh had become one of England’s wealthiest men overnight after the death of his childless brother-in-law the Earl of Gloucester at Bannockburn, and inheritance of half the earl’s estates by Sir Hugh’s wife, yet until he was appointed chamberlain by parliament in 1318 Edward took little notice of him. From then on, however, he supervised every detail of the royal day, becoming all powerful, and by 1320 he witnessed three-quarters of the charters issued by Edward. Very different from Gaveston, he has been convincingly described as ‘a war lord, a politician and an administrator’.22

To Queen Isabella, it seemed that Piers had come again. At this time she enjoyed so much prestige that in 1319, when she was staying near York during the siege of Berwick, the Scots diverted 10,000 troops to capture her, but the plot was discovered by a spy. ‘Had the queen been taken prisoner, I think Scotland might have been able to impose peace [on its own terms]’, comments the Vita,23 whose author thought Lancaster had told them where to find her. Hugh must have known he could not dominate this strong, shrewd woman.

Hugh’s greed verged on the manic, as did that of his father, another Sir Hugh. In 1320 they obtained the vacant marcher lordship of the Gower by persuading the king to confiscate it and then grant it to them. The Marchers were outraged, since the precedent made their own fiefs vulnerable to seizure. In any case, they were terrified of young Despenser, a violent man who had recently murdered the captive Llewelyn Bren.

In spring 1321, led by Humphrey Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, they mobilized. In June they attended a meeting in Yorkshire with Lancaster and other northern lords that resulted in an ‘indenture’ demanding the Despensers’ dismissal. The protesters were joined by Pembroke, John of Brittany and Lord Badlesmere, and by such former royal favourites as Roger Damory and Hugh Audley. On her knees in tears, Queen Isabella begged her husband to get rid of the pair. When parliament met in July it was surrounded by the barons’ armed retainers. Denounced as evil counsellors and enemies of the people, the Despensers were banished.

According to the Vita, the ‘cruel and greedy father’ simply went abroad (to Bordeaux), but the son took up a murderous career as a pirate, turning into a ‘sea monster’. One of his exploits was capturing a great Genoese merchantman, slaughtering the entire crew and stealing its immensely valuable cargo.24 Meanwhile, Edward plotted their return.

The end of the Ordainers

In October, ostensibly on pilgrimage to Canterbury, Queen Isabella arrived at the royal castle of Leeds in Kent, demanding to spend the night there. Suspecting she intended to seize it, the wife of its absent castellan, Lord Badlesmere, greeted her with a flight of arrows, killing six of her escort. Badlesmere made matters worse by writing a truculent letter to Isabella, saying that he fully approved of his wife’s actions. Joined by a contingent from London, where the queen was very popular, the king assembled an army and besieged the castle, using stone-throwers. On learning the Earl of Lancaster refused to send help, Lady Badlesmere surrendered. She was sent to the Tower, while the garrison commander, Sir Walter Culpeper, was hanged from the battlements with a dozen of his men.

Encouraged, Edward summoned the Despensers home in December, dispatching troops to capture other baronial castles. Early in 1322 he took a small army to the Welsh border, where he routed the Marchers, seizing all their strongholds. Then he went up to northern England, to deal with Lancaster. He is often praised for the military ability he showed on the campaign, but it must have been supplied by an experienced commander at his side – the elder Despenser or John of Brittany.

Lancaster found himself outmanoeuvred. Although joined by the Earl of Hereford, he was deserted by his henchmen and Pembroke. Retreating northwards with 700 men-at-arms, he hoped to find refuge in his castle at Dunstanburgh on the Northumbrian coast, but on 16 March was intercepted at Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire by Sir Andrew Harclay from Cumberland, who brought 4,000 pike-men and archers. Trying to cross the River Ure over the bridge, Hereford was killed – stabbed up the backside with a spear by a man standing below – while his comrades’ attempt to ford was repulsed by devastating arrow fire. In despair, Lancaster rode back to his lodgings in Boroughbridge, where he was arrested the next day.

Less than a week later, after a trial before King Edward in the hall of his own castle of Pontefract, during which he was forbidden to speak in his defence, the earl was led out on a donkey to a little hill nearby and beheaded as a traitor. It was not only the memory of Piers’s murder that made Edward pitiless; he feared his cousin was planning to take his place. In view of the unholy regime that followed, many people venerated Lancaster as a martyr and the tomb of ‘St Thomas’ became a place of pilgrimage.

The ‘Contrariants’, the earl’s leading supporters, were treated mercilessly, Badlesmere and twenty-eight knights suffering the full penalties for treason. Another eighty-six knights were imprisoned and over a hundred more received crippling fines. Two months later, a parliament repealed the Ordinances in the Statute of York, with a proviso that no restraints of this sort must ever again be placed on the king’s power. Ironically, the fact that the regime used parliament to do so demonstrated parliament’s increasing importance.

The Despenser tyranny

Despite the shameful defeat at Old Byland in August that year, the Despensers ruled the kingdom, since Edward confirmed all their decisions. Pembroke’s death in 1324 removed the one man who might have restrained them. ‘Weak as he had often been in action, doubtful as were some of his subtle changes of front, with him disappeared the best influence that had ever been exerted on the court and council of Edward II.’25 The elder Hugh was created Earl of Winchester, securing many estates confiscated in the Midlands and southern England.

The Vita comments, ‘the son’s wickedness outweighed the father’s harshness’.26 The younger Hugh did as he pleased, knowing the king would back him. Creating a fiefdom for himself in south Wales and on the Marches that stretched from Milford Haven to Chepstow, as well as seizing the lands of his sisters-in-law, he bullied several wealthy widows into handing over their estates. A Glamorgan lady had her limbs broken, sending the poor woman insane, while Lancaster’s widow was threatened with burning alive as a husband murderer, on the pretext she must have led him astray.

For a time, such methods worked. ‘No one, however great or wise, dares to go against what the king wants’, records the author of the Vita.27 By September 1324 the younger Hugh had deposited almost £6,000 with Florentine bankers and over the next two years nearly another £6,000 with the Peruzzi – billions in today’s money and only part of his wealth, which was mainly in land.

Yet there were dangerous irreconcilables, such as Sir Roger Mortimer of Wigmore, an old enemy of the Despensers from the Welsh Marches who had been imprisoned in the Tower. In 1323, having drugged his guards’ wine, including that of the constable, with a potion supplied by his friend Bishop Orleton, he escaped up a chimney, over a roof and down the wall, using a series of ropes, before swimming the Thames. He then fled to France.

Paradoxically, the Despensers’ rule saw administrative reforms since it suited them for Edward to be rich. They had started earlier in the reign to save the royal household from control by the Ordainers, and now the Exchequer and the household offices – the Wardrobe and the Chamber – became more efficient. In 1323 the treasurer, Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, introduced proper tax records. All this increased the Crown’s revenues. (One of the first Englishmen known to wear spectacles, Walter Stapledon was a complex figure, whom the Vita calls ‘immeasurably greedy’.28) Sound innovations took place at grass-roots level, sheriffs being recruited from the gentlemen of their county and holding office for only a limited period, while steps were taken to standardize weights and measures.29

Isabella versus the Despensers

Old Byland made it plain that the attempt to conquer Scotland had failed. Andrew Harclay, created Earl of Carlisle for defeating Lancaster at Boroughbridge, was so shaken that he negotiated a secret treaty, recognizing Bruce as King Robert in return for a guarantee that his estates would be spared by the Scots. Refusing to accept the war had been lost, Edward was so angry when he learned of Harclay’s treaty that he had him executed as a traitor.

Even Londoners were alarmed by Old Byland, a delegation asking the constable of the Tower if he expected the city to be attacked by Scots. They were horrified by the perils of the queen, whom Edward had left at Tynemouth Priory on the Northumbrian coast. Taking refuge in the adjoining castle, she found herself besieged on land by Scots and from the sea by a Flemish fleet. Her husband sent letters to her but made no attempt at rescue. (The younger Despenser was later accused of telling him to let Isabella be captured.) Eventually, she escaped in a fast ship, although one of her ladies fell overboard.

Nobody knows why the younger Hugh had such a hold over Edward. Writing half a century later, Froissart says the relationship was homosexual – Despenser had been ‘a sodomite, even with the king’30 – while nearer the time Robert of Reading refers to ‘illicit and sinful unions’, claiming that Edward refused to sleep with the queen.31 Yet Isabella bore him a daughter in 1321 and Hugh’s wife had one in 1319 and another in 1325, which added up to a total of nine Despenser children. As with Gaveston, Hugh’s fascination for the king is more likely to have stemmed from sheer force of personality.

Robert of Reading’s ‘illicit and sinful unions’ could refer to women instead of a man. A Hainault chronicle says the king was having an affair with Hugh’s wife, Eleanor de Clare, but suggestions of a ‘wife-swap’ are unconvincing.32 A popular modern writer even claims that the queen was raped by Hugh, for which there is not the slightest shred of evidence.33 All that is certain is that in 1325 Isabella announced publicly that somebody had come between her and her husband.

She had spent a year living apart from Edward after her escape from the Scots in 1322, the excuse being her desire to make several long pilgrimages. Returning to court the next autumn. she found the Despensers more firmly entrenched than ever, and still more hostile. Then the pair made a series of blunders that showed how much they underestimated her.

The queen’s plot

In October 1323 a Gascon noble burned to the ground a disputed bastide on the northern frontier of Guyenne. The English seneschal at Bordeaux was blamed, his refusal to appear before King Charles IV’s court at Toulouse resulting in the ‘War of Saint-Sardos’. In September 1324 a French army occupied the Agenais, declaring all Gascony forfeit under feudal law. Edward’s brother, the Earl of Kent, only obtained a six months’ truce by surrendering La Réole.

The Despensers bore a grudge against King Charles for refusing to give them refuge in 1321 and sheltering fugitives such as Mortimer. At their prompting, as soon as the Agenais was occupied Edward confiscated Isabella’s estates, pretending she might be a threat during a French invasion – the real motive being that the Despensers coveted her lands. In November she was declared an enemy alien, her household being dissolved and its officials imprisoned in religious houses. Her children were placed in the care of Hugh Despenser’s wife – who may have been her husband’s mistress.

It looked as if Edward was going to lose Guyenne. At the papal nuncio’s suggestion, he sent Isabella to plead with her brother, Charles IV, in March 1325. Told to return by midsummer, she was given back her household as a peace offering. Possessing her father King Philip’s sphinx-like quality, she deceived even the younger Hugh. ‘When she left, she said good bye to everyone and went off happily enough’, her husband later complained.34 The queen had reason to look pleased since events were playing into her hands, but for six months after her departure Edward and his favourites suspected nothing.

Then the French king announced that Edward’s eldest son could pay homage in his place and keep the duchy. Reluctantly, the Despensers gave approval. The thirteen-year-old Prince Edward arrived in France, escorted by Bishop Stapledon, and did homage. With her son in her hands, Isabella decided to put him on the throne of England in place of her husband.

Stapledon had brought a message from Edward, commanding her to return to England as soon as the prince reached the French court. Dressed in black like a widow, she gave an answer that frightened the bishop into fleeing back across the Channel. ‘In my opinion, marriage is a union of a man and a woman, loyally living their life together, and somebody has come between my husband and myself and is trying to break the bond’, she said. ‘I tell you, I shan’t return until this intruder has been removed and now I’ve taken off my wedding dress I shall go on dressing as a widow does when she’s in mourning until I’ve taken my revenge on such a Pharisee.’ King Charles, who was present, said, ‘If she wants to stay here, I won’t make her go – she’s my sister.’35

In response the royal council (which meant the Despensers), instructed the bishops of England to write to Isabella. The theme of their letters was ‘Hugh Despenser has formally demonstrated his innocence in front of everyone and shown he has never harmed the queen, but done everything in his power to help her, and has confirmed by his sworn oath that he will always do this in future’, and, less suavely, ‘you want to destroy a whole people out of hatred for one man’.36

She took no notice, keeping her son with her, the centre of a group of English exiles who hated the Despensers. The most distinguished were the king’s brother Edmund, Earl of Kent, and John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond. They also included Roger Mortimer, ten years older than herself, who became not only her political adviser but her lover despite his having a wife and twelve children. The group left France in the middle of 1326, either because King Charles was irritated by the scandal or because he would not give them troops. In Hainault, in return for offering to marry Prince Edward to the count’s daughter Philippa, she obtained the money, ships and soldiers needed for an invasion.

The fall of Edward II and the Despensers

Isabella’s expedition landed near Orwell in Suffolk on 24 September, bringing 2,000 men led by Mortimer. She issued a proclamation against the Despensers, whom she denounced as murderers of the Earl of Lancaster, robbers and oppressors. When she advanced inland there was no opposition. Her opponents did not dare to raise a large army for fear it might mutiny – what troops they had ran away. Edward and the younger Hugh fled to the West Country, hoping to find supporters.

The queen announced that she would punish the Londoners if they did not help her overthrow the Despensers. They responded by rioting on 15 October, the day when the industrious Bishop Stapledon, whom the king had left behind as ‘guardian’, unwisely rode into the City. He was chased by a mob, dragged off his horse while trying to reach sanctuary in St Paul’s and beheaded with a bread knife.

At Bristol the elder Despenser attempted to bargain for his life when Isabella’s army arrived, but his men let in her troops. Although she wanted to save him, he was tried at once. ‘Sir Hugh, this court forbids you to answer [the charges] because you made a law that men can be condemned without replying’, he was told. ‘By force and against the law of the land, and taking upon yourself royal power, you counselled the king to disinherit and undo his lieges, notably my lord Thomas of Lancaster whom you put to death without cause. You are a robber and by your cruelty you have robbed this land, so that the entire people cry vengeance on you.’37 Found guilty by a roaring mob, old Hugh was hanged in his armour with his coat of arms reversed, then cut down alive, disembowelled and quartered. His remains were fed to scavenging dogs.

Prince Edward was proclaimed Guardian of the Realm. Meanwhile, his father and the younger Hugh tried to sail for Ireland, but were driven back by a storm. Eventually, on 16 November the pair were captured at Neath Abbey in Glamorgan by Henry of Lancaster, the late Earl Thomas’s brother. The king was taken to Kenilworth Castle where he was kept under guard, Henry forcing him to surrender the great seal.

Eight days later, having failed to starve himself to death, Hugh Despenser was tried at Hereford in the presence of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Among the charges were appropriating royal powers, murdering noblemen, procuring Lancaster’s execution and responsibility for defeat by the Scots, as well as destroying the queen’s marriage. Forbidden to plead although too weak to speak, he was condemned to die as a thief, traitor and returned exile. Naked, wearing a crown of nettles and with mocking verses carved on his skin by knives, at one point screaming inhumanly, he was dragged into the city’s main square by four horses to the sound of trumpets and bagpipes. After being half-hanged on a 50 ft tall gallows, he was disembowelled in the usual way.

The deposition of Edward II

Edward refused to attend a parliament in London summoned in his name. When it met in January 1327, rejecting any possibility of Isabella rejoining him – Bishop Orleton (an old friend of Mortimer) stated that the king carried a knife in his hose to murder the queen and said he would kill her with his teeth were it taken from him. Read by Archbishop Reynolds of Canterbury, the Articles of Deposition denounced Edward for bad government, listening to men who gave evil counsel, undignified amusements, losing Scotland and squandering the realm’s treasure. He had done all he could to ruin his subjects, and his cruelty and weakness demonstrated he was incorrigible.

On 12 January Edward was formally deposed, his son being proclaimed king. At Kenilworth later that month, clothed in black from head to foot, he abdicated, weeping and half-fainting when asked to resign the Crown by a delegation that came from every section of society: magnates and gentry, prelates, abbots and friars, barons of the Cinque Ports. The entire country wanted to be rid of him. In his misery, he composed some verses, beginning ‘En tenps de iver me survynt damage’:

In winter woe befell me,

By cruel fortune threatened

My life now lies a ruin . . .38

Edward II’s murder

Shortly afterwards, the ex-king was taken by night to closer confinement at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, where his gaoler was an old enemy whom he had persecuted, John, Lord Berkeley. En route, he was ill-treated and mocked by his escort, who shaved off his hair and beard at the roadside with cold water from a ditch, dressed him in old clothes, put a crown of hay on his head and made him swallow rotting food. When he arrived, he was shut in a cell over a cesspit filled with stinking animal carcases.

One chronicler says Edward was taken to other prisons as well, moved about to confuse such would-be rescuers as his confessor, a Dominican friar called Thomas Dunheved, who in 1326 had been in Rome seeking the annulment of the king’s marriage. He was abetted by his brother Stephen (a pardoned outlaw) with a Cistercian monk from Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire. In July 1327 they broke into Berkeley Castle, briefly releasing the ex-king, although he was speedily recaptured.39 In addition, Sir Rhys ap Griffith, who was an old foe of Roger Mortimer, together with other Welshmen, plotted to attack the castle and deliver the king.

Rumours of rescue doomed Edward, since Isabella and Mortimer realized their rule was growing unpopular. The ex-king was liquidated on the night of 27 September 1327, in a way designed to conceal that he had been murdered. Held down by pillows on a table, a horn funnel was rammed up his rectum, and through it a red-hot plumber’s iron was inserted. His shrieks could be heard throughout the castle.40

In 1340 an Italian cleric named Manuel Fieschi, a papal notary who had held benefices at Salisbury and Ampleforth, and was obviously well informed about the deposition, sent a strange letter to Edward III. He said the ex-king had escaped from Berkeley, taking refuge in Ireland and then at Avignon, sheltered by Pope John XXII, before spending the rest of his life as a hermit in northern Italy where he died. Fieschi claimed he had actually spoken to Edward, who gave him details of his escape. It is difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion that Fieschi’s letter was no more than an ingenious attempt to extract money.41

Not only do most modern historians accept that Edward II died at Berkeley Castle, but so did contemporaries. Embalmed, his body lay in the castle’s chapel for three months because Queen Isabella declined a request by the monks of Westminster to bury him, for fear it might result in hostile demonstrations by Londoners. Finally, without asking permission, the aged Abbot John Thokey of Gloucester, who had been a friend of the king, sent a hearse to bring the corpse from Berkeley for interment in his own abbey. Rumours of the murder had spread all over England and, alarmed, Isabella and Mortimer attended the funeral, both in mourning.

Gloucester Abbey became a shrine, such large crowds flocking to the king’s tomb near the high altar that a wooden effigy with a copper gilt crown was placed on it. Over the years, this was replaced by one of Purbeck marble whose haunting face, seen from a certain angle, gives an unmistakable impression of weakness. There were so many offerings that the abbot was able to rebuild the church.


However much pilgrims might venerate the dead King Edward II, in life he had been an unmitigated disaster without a single redeeming feature. He even lacked the family demon. One cannot disagree with Tout’s verdict, ‘a coward and a trifler’,42 or with a modern historian who calls his reign ‘the nadir of the dynasty’.43

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